December 6, 2010 By Jim McKay
In the perpetual budget crisis of today and the foreseeable future, funding public safety and emergency preparedness projects takes collaboration among agencies and jurisdictions, and sometimes a bit of creativity to get needed resources.
In a recent survey conducted by this publication, respondents overwhelmingly listed funding as the major obstacle to accomplishing their missions. But some are finding creative and collaborative ways to obtain the funding they need for their mission-critical projects.
In Framingham, Mass., Deputy Police Chief and Emergency Management Director Steven Trask felt that the town would benefit greatly from an alert notification system but had no way to fund it. He eventually convinced the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation to help, and everyone is glad he did.
In Boston, Emergency Preparedness Director Don McGough and his team were looking at solar energy as a way to enhance emergency preparedness and specifically as a backup to the evacuation system. A $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is helping them follow through.
And in Northern California, a simple public-private partnership has provided 21st-century radio communications where it was badly needed.
In Yolo County, Calif., replacing the emergency radio communication system that dates to the late 1980s was essential. The county began the planning stages two years ago and secured state and federal grants.x
The grants included a 2007 Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant and a 2008 Assistance to Firefighters Grant for a total of $1 million. Each grant required a match of approximately 20 percent and that amounted to $362,451, which the county and its four cities paid. They also worked out a deal with wireless service provider MetroPCS for a new radio tower.
MetroPCS approached the county five years ago about building a tower in the county because it needed to place some of its equipment there. But the 120-foot tower that initially resulted was insufficient for the new microwave equipment the county needed for its new radio communication system. Negotiations took place and MetroPCS agreed to erect a new, 180-foot tower for its use and the county’s new system.
It saved the county about $90,000 or about half the tower’s cost.
“It was a big benefit that MetroPCS participated in this project with us,” said Patricia Williams, executive director of the Yolo Emergency Communications Agency. “It could have been a more tedious process, but they’ve been generous and cooperative, and it’s made a huge difference for public safety to have a partner like that.”
That’s your basic public-private partnership in a nutshell. What Trask did in Framingham is a little more out of the box.
One of his first missions when he became emergency management director in 2006 was to deploy an emergency notification system. Trask found a vendor, Blackboard Connect, but needed $60,000 a year to run a notification system. To convince the local legislative body to vote to fund it, he had to demonstrate some return on investment.
“It’s kind of a hard animal to describe what an emergency notification system is and what you want to do with it,” Trask said. “I figured if I could make them fall in love with the product, they would fund it. The first year of funding was tricky.”
Trask first convinced the department heads of the local Police, Fire and Public Works departments how valuable the system could be and persuaded each to chip in $5,000 or $10,000.
Then he went to the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation and inquired about health and wellness grants. The tie-in was that children or Alzheimer’s patients would frequently become lost and the notification system would help locate and return them to safety.
“When Steve first approached us, I was a little skeptical,” said MetroWest Executive Director Martin Cohen. “We’re a health-care foundation and our clear interest is health and wellness.”
Trask continued to pitch the system, and it eventually became clear to Cohen and those at MetroWest that it might be a worthwhile investment. MetroWest saw the possibility of using the system to notify the public about health issues.
“When we went over the capabilities of the system, it became clear [there was] the opportunity to use this not only for public safety but also around some wellness things, like possible issues with drinking water, pollution and chemical spills.
“We said we’re willing to give them some money to try it out, but the ongoing expense still does remain with the town,” Cohen said. “But if we could seed the project and you could convince the town meeting members and taxpayers that it’s of worth, then it’s a good investment.”
MetroWest kicked in a $30,000 grant to seed the project and saw return on investment almost immediately when a man with Alzheimer’s disease wandered from home.
“About a month into it, in mid-January, lo and behold there was an elderly individual who was at risk on a cold day,” Trask said. “We put the phone call out and in direct response, got tips from people who recognized the man wandering around a parking lot not too far from his house not dressed appropriately for the weather.”
Trask said the system was enlisted about 35 to 40 times that first year and the town’s population embraced it. “I knew if we got to use the system, they’d love it, and they did.” That made it easier to persuade the town’s legislators to include the system in Trask’s budget.
The system is run through Blackboard Connect, but Trask crafts the messages on his computer, laptop, BlackBerry or by phone.
“The vendor has the ability to push about a thousand calls a minute out there so I can notify my entire town [80,000 residents, 20,000 of whom have signed on] in 20 to 25 minutes,” he said. “It pushes out a message and I get an e-mail that shows me who was notified, how they were notified and whether it was a live delivery or an answering machine.”
Trask uses that feedback to tally his yearly reports, a requirement of keeping the system going. “One of the requirements of the grant is year-end reporting,” he said. “At the end of the year, we send out a phone call to our residents that’s a single question survey, they just press a button.”
The question asks if residents feel safer now that the system is in place. Trask said he gets a 30 to 40 percent response rate and of those, about 95 percent say they feel safer.
“People appreciate getting a message from someone they know or at least recognize,” he said. The messages go to land line phones, cell phones or a computer portal if the resident requested that route.
“I start the messages off with, ‘This is Deputy Chief Trask, and this is an important message,’” he said. “They know it’s me and I’m not trying to sell them anything.”
The system has been in place for four years and the budget is tighter now, Trask said. “It hasn’t come up on the radar to be put on the chopping block, and that speaks volumes.”
In 2007, Boston became one of 13 Solar America Cities under the DOE’s Solar American Initiative, and subsequently launched Solar Boston, a program aimed at encouraging solar-energy adoption in the city.
So it was natural to look at solar energy as a way of backing up the city’s evacuation plans. McGough convened a group to look at redundancy and how solar energy fit in.
He said the team — consisting of the Office of Emergency Preparedness and public safety agencies — identified about 15 different applications for solar energy that could enhance emergency preparedness and lend some redundancy to the evacuation system. The workshop also included a DOE presence.
“We identified a number of different things like radio repeaters, traffic signals, lighting along [the evacuation] routes and fueling stations — all things important to allowing us to do an evacuation even if there was an interruption to our electrical source of power,” McGough said.
Then an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant for $1.3 million became available through the DOE. McGough learned of the grant from the city’s Department of Environment. “We had formed a relationship with them. We had worked with them previously, and when they were notified of the grant, we were at the forefront of their minds,” McGough said. “It was really a collective approach and not from learning of the grant directly but indirectly from our city partners.”
From there it was full speed ahead on developing the projects. “We’ve come up with a pilot initiative for a solar evacuation route,” he said. “Because so many of those things we identified could be applicable, from fuel pumps to traffic signals to lighting and emergency communications.”
McGough said a lesson learned from evacuation planning was that there must be the capacity to keep vehicles moving. A stalled vehicle means a dead evacuation route, whether it’s an evacuee or first responder vehicle. One of the initiatives is to ensure that fueling stations have solar-powered canopies that would be used as a backup during a power disruption.
Another obstacle to an efficient evacuation would be a traffic signal outage. “That’s one of the applications we had previously identified and we’re looking to provide solar power, so even if at a minimum it’s a blinking yellow and red light, that’s better than nothing,” McGough said.
Solar power also could help keep the camera systems at various intersections operational during a power outage. And the radio repeaters that support voice and data traffic in the region are critical during a crisis. “If we had [solar] nodes that we can maintain, that helps provide a more redundant and reliable system, we could continue to communicate across the area,” McGough said.
He said this is the tip of the iceberg with what can happen with solar energy and emergency preparedness. “All the stars are aligned that this is something that’s great for emergency response and preparedness.”
And it happened as a result of a partnership and a little bit of creative thinking, which might be the recipe for funding projects in the current budget climate.
“We’re all finding ourselves in a position where funding is harder to come by,” McGough said, “and a couple of things happen with that: We need to be more creative in the way we identify available resources, and we need to be more collaborative. I think this is a good example of both.”
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